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Riding the Wave

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Stand-alone restaurants The Grill and Curry Bowl and Oyster Bay have become popular seafood destinations in Bangalore. Managing Director speaks on the highs and lows of running specialty restaurants with

The Initial Years

Philips Thomas and Vinod Kumar, Director, have been running Penver Products, a seafood export company in the Kochi District of Kerala, for over 25 years, when the idea struck them that they should venture into the business as well.
They opened Oyster Bay in 2010 – a buffet concept for lovers of seafood – for which they invested close to Rs 2.25 crore. The stand-alone restaurant covers 3,000 sqft area and has a seating capacity of 80. Thomas informs that the initial plan was to have a buffet style of self-service, and a centralised kitchen supported by Penver’s efficient cold supply chain. They visualised no less than 8-10 outlets, all in Bangalore. However, they soon realised that the buffet concept was not really profitable, especially with only seafood on the menu, and the restaurant went through several changes in the menu. “In an ‘unlimited buffet’ people tend to fill up their plates with prawns and other fish items, and go slow on the rice,” observes Thomas.
After its inception only three years ago, it will be re-launched this year, albeit with a Kerala cuisine concept called JAK (Just Around Kerala), and a complete make-over of its interiors and the menu, informs Thomas. ”When a new restaurant opens, there is a lot of curiosity initially, and it does good business for a couple of months. But it actually takes a year or so for the restaurant to stabilise and be positioned firmly in the marketplace. During this period one has to contend with a lot of ups and downs, and making amendments, alterations, experimenting, etc, till you get it right,” he adds.
The Grill and Curry Bowl (TGCB) opened in September 2012, at 1 MG Mall. The restaurant, spread across 2,500 sqft with a seating capacity of 62, serves a la carte seafood, with dishes  priced Rs 1,100 -1,200. Its target audience is the upper middle class aged between 30 and 45 years.  Executive Chef Thomson Francis skillfully prepares fast moving popular dishes such as the Allepy fish curry, grills in different flavours, and the Andhra chilli chicken.
The owners invested around Rs 1.75 crore, and Thomas informs that after the initial hiccups in the first year, sales doubled in the second year itself, and are now growing at 10 percent month on month. The two restaurants together are making an average of Rs 20 lakh a month.  According to him, specialty restaurants like TGCB do not get affected by economic downturns and other changes in the market, but his other restaurant, Oyster Bay, which draws a lot of IT professionals and their families, is affected if the economy dips, as it means a slow down in their spending habits.
Importance of Location
According to Thomas, opening and operating stand-alone restaurants is pretty expensive, where car parking alone can be an issue. “This prompted us to open in a mall as it offers ample parking, water supply, constant supply of electricity, air conditioning, higher footfalls due to the shoppers, and other support services. TGCB is located at the 1 MG Mall, which is also a food destination with several restaurants, including Irish, Thai and Mexican in the vicinity. The mall is opposite a couple of premium hotels, so we get a lot of footfalls. When we opened, 60-70 percent were walk-ins, but now it’s vice versa,” he says.
A restaurant in a mall has to adhere by the mall’s rules, for instance, it has to carry out the maintenance, follow the opening and closing hours, etc, but overall malls offer more benefits than not, and they can be more expensive by 10 percent as compared to stand-alone properties. “Many a times I have to monitor the restaurant from outside; but since the mall enables additional services it makes running the restaurant smoother, so we take the extra cost in our stride.”

Challenges
Running a speciality restaurant, comes with its own set of challenges. Says Thomas, “When we opened TGCB, our price points were considered to be on the higher side by the customers. An 800 gm pomfret was priced Rs 2,000, which they felt was costly. It took us two months of tests and trials, with changes in the basic menu, and adding or dropping certain dishes depending on customer feedback, before we began to stabilise. I think these are typical challenges in any restaurant.”
Thomas also opines that there is a lot of hype about the city’s growth as a food destination, and about the spending power of the people in Bangalore. This is resulting in a lot of new restaurants opening. “I think this hype is being created, and not based on facts. It is what pulled me into this industry, but the real picture is very different. In Koramangala alone there are more than 100 restaurants. People have so many choices now, that a restaurateur is lucky if he sees repeat visits. This is making us rethink our expansion plan.” His two restaurants employ around 300 people and retaining them is a constant effort as they are pulled by other restaurateurs.

On the Anvil

In the next three years Thomas is looking at opening 8-12 TGCB restaurants in South India, starting with Hyderabad and Chennai this year. “We cannot spend more than 10 percent of our revenue in marketing,” says Thomas. “But we are hopeful that word-of-mouth publicity of our restaurants will do the trick.” Depending on consumer acceptance of JAK, the Kerala cusine restaurant will also be taken forward to tier II cities; he informs.